Who Are the Competitors to SpaceX’s Starship in 2023?

In the ever-advancing world of space exploration, competition is fierce, and the latest developments from SpaceX’s competitors demonstrate the industry’s dynamism.

While Elon Musk’s Starship continues to make headlines, other players in the space race are making significant strides.

In today’s article, we’ll explore three key developments: Firefly Aerospace’s rapid military test, Stoke Space’s innovative mini-Starship, and SpaceX’s ongoing journey toward FAA certification.

SpaceX’s FAA Certification Saga

Before delving into the advancements of SpaceX’s competitors, let’s revisit Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its ongoing quest for FAA certification.

Last week, the FAA concluded its investigation into the SpaceX LED mishap during Starship’s first test flight in April.

However, the FAA’s announcement left many puzzled, even prompting Elon Musk to seek clarity on the matter.

Musk, on September 10th, asserted that SpaceX had completed all 57 items required for FAA certification, with the remaining six issues intended for post-test completion.

The intricacies of these undisclosed conditions attached to the additional issues make it challenging to confirm Musk’s claims.

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Nevertheless, SpaceX’s actions, such as the de-stacking of the super heavy rocket on September 14th, suggest they are inching closer to a launch attempt.

While the FAA’s approval is a significant milestone, SpaceX must still focus on final flight preparations, including the installation of the flight termination system, seal checks, and a comprehensive flight inspection.

Although SpaceX’s seasoned crews work efficiently, this phase could extend into October, signaling a potential test flight shortly.

1. Firefly Aerospace’s Swift Military Test

On September 13th, the U.S. Space Force issued a launch order to Vandenberg Space Force Base, setting the stage for a remarkable test by Firefly Aerospace.

In an astonishing feat, Firefly engineers successfully transitioned from standby to launch in under 27 hours, a process that traditionally takes weeks or even months to accomplish.

This test, known as Victus Knox, aimed to assess the rapid deployment of a military satellite when the need arose.

Firefly Aerospace collaborated with Millennium Space Systems, a small satellite company, for this groundbreaking test.

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Both teams remained on a six-month hot standby phase, ensuring their equipment was launch-ready at a moment’s notice. The process began when the order from Space Force Command arrived, initiating a 60-hour countdown.

Millennium led the charge, conducting final checks and transporting the satellite to Vandenberg within hours. Firefly engineers swiftly prepared the rocket and payload, eventually launching the satellite into orbit.

Subsequently, Millennium had 48 hours to activate the satellite and ensure its proper orbital placement.

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Despite a minor delay due to weather conditions, this test demonstrated the capability to deploy an orbital asset within 132 hours, a record-breaking achievement.

This success bodes well for Firefly Aerospace and Millennium, both of which have plans for expansion following this exceptional test.

Firefly secured another government contract with L3 Harris to launch three satellites for the Space Force in 2026.

2. Stoke Space’s Innovative Hopper 2 Test Vehicle

Stoke Space, a Washington-based startup, has been making waves in the aerospace industry with its Hopper 2 test vehicle.

Introduced in early 2023, this fully reusable two-stage methane-powered rocket is designed for propulsive landings after returning from orbit, akin to a miniature Starship.

stoke space hopper 2
Credit: Stoke Space

Notable features of this prototype include a regenerative heat shield and the utilization of re-entry heat to power the second stage’s fuel pumps.

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On September 14th, Stoke Space conducted static fire tests on its upper-stage simulator, marking a significant milestone.

This test aimed to stress-test the thruster systems, a critical component of their innovative technology.

Notably, the onboard navigation computer successfully corrected the simulator’s simulated tumbling motion, showcasing the effectiveness of their avionics and reaction control systems.

Taking the innovation a step further, Stoke Space executed a real hop test on September 17th, similar to early Starship hops.

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The smaller methane engines provided controlled motion without relying on reaction control thrusters, enhancing control during landing maneuvers.

Stoke Space’s groundbreaking ideas and progress in developing a fully reusable rocket with precise control have generated significant excitement in the space exploration community.

With continued funding and development, Stoke Space could pave the way for revolutionary advancements in space travel.

Conclusion

As we witness these remarkable developments from SpaceX’s competitors, it becomes evident that the space race is alive and thriving.

Firefly Aerospace’s rapid military test showcases the potential for swift satellite deployment, while Stoke Space’s innovative Hopper 2 test vehicle opens doors to enhanced reusable rocket technology.

While SpaceX’s journey toward FAA certification continues, the industry is brimming with innovation and competition.

The future of space exploration promises exciting advancements, and we eagerly anticipate what’s next in the dynamic world of aerospace and interstellar exploration.

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